By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
GOODLETTSVILLE — When Ken Castleberry, pastor, Parkway Baptist Church, started Upward Basketball here 12 years ago, it drew 75 children.
Today, the church manages an Upward Basketball and Upward Cheerleading league involving three other churches which draws about 490 children or teens, 100 coaches, 35 referees, and another 400 adult volunteers.
About 2,000 people will attend the league’s upcoming Upward Awards Night which has to be held at a church not involved in the program that has a sanctuary which can accommodate the crowd.
Players and cheerleaders come mostly from the community rather than the four churches, said Matt Megginson, minister of family life at Parkway who coordinates the Upward league.
“We use basketball to start a conversation about the gospel with our community,” added Megginson.
The conversation is wide-ranging, but always respectful, reported Megginson, as coaches, referees, and volunteers get to know students and family members who are Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, Hindu, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The students who participate also represent many races. A majority of the players and cheerleaders are African-Americans who live in the neighborhoods of the churches.
Last year the three-month effort resulted in 17 students making professions of faith, the minister noted, adding that he expects at least that many to make the same life-changing commitment this year. A devotional is presented at each practice and at half-time of each game, which is played on Saturdays.
Toward the end of the season the plan of salvation is presented during practice by the coaches and during the half-time of a game by a person who shares a devotional. Finally, the plan of salvation and a decision time is a part of Awards Night, explained Megginson. Follow-up on people making decisions is provided.
“Upward is loving on the community and sharing Jesus,” he noted. “We’re trying to meet these families and make a difference in their lives. … God has blessed this.”
Upward leaders at Parkway use plans developed by Upward Sports, a Christian youth sports provider which is being used by 2,000 churches in 47 states involving one-half million players.
To keep up with the growing program, Megginson admitted he has received a lot of “noes” as he has contacted churches seeking more gym space and volunteers who might serve as coaches, referees, and in other roles. But he also has heard a lot of “yeses,” he added.
In fact, one church which participated at one time didn’t have a gym but “they had volunteers.”
Another church, Dalewood Baptist Church, Nashville, had a gym but no members in the aging, small congregation who could be volunteers. Yet, as members committed to do what they could do, Upward leaders “decided we could work together and make that happen,” reported Megginson.
Dalewood Baptist is one of the four churches hosting the league and church members are thrilled to see so many people, hundreds each week, using their facility, he added.
Churches which participate are evangelistic though not all Baptist.
Obstacles have arisen, Megginson recalled. For years he had been allowed to distribute flyers about Upward in an area public school. Then a new principal rejected the flyers but referred Megginson to the Metro Nashville school board, where the distribution of Upward flyers was not only approved, but Megginson was asked what schools he would like to target. Last year he and others distributed 11,000 flyers for the Parkway Upward league in 30 schools.
“God really opened that door,” he observed.
A new feature the last couple of years has been the addition of basketball tournaments for older boys and girls. Megginson is assisted in conducting Upward by a 10-person committee of members of Parkway.
Megginson said Upward and its expansion is a strategy of Parkway Baptist which is endorsed by its staff. For instance, Castleberry is still a coach after 12 years and all of the rest of the staff are involved in some way.
Over the years of involvement with Upward, Parkway “realized the opportunity that lay before us. At first we were willing to let the community come in (our gym) and that became us wanting them to come in,” said Megginson.